TCS Daily

Why Has There Been No Mad Cow Solution?

By Anthony A. Frank - February 3, 2004 12:00 AM

There's a popular perception that scientific discoveries come from the "Eureka!" moment -- or a time when, like in a Hollywood production, the muse intercedes and brings the lightning flash of a research breakthrough.

But there's also this truth -- every major research accomplishment is built on years of painstaking attention to detail and gradual progress. As Thomas Edison famously said, "Genius is one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration. Accordingly, a 'genius' is often merely a talented person who has done all of his or her homework."

To carry our analogy farther, with the discovery of a cow infected with BSE in Washington state, we as a nation are facing a big test. But we haven't really done the homework we would have liked on the root cause of the issue: the group of neurogenerative disorders known as TSE's -- or transmissible spongiform encephalopathy, of which BSE, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy or "mad cow disease," is one type.

Although scientists know quite a lot about TSEs, there are still significant questions, such as what causes the abnormal proteins (prions) that lead to the disease and exactly how the disease is transmitted? These are key questions to which we, at present, do not have the knowledge we would like to drive our efforts at dealing with this issue.

It is important to stress that we have many advantages in dealing with BSE in the United States, and I am confident we will protect, and even improve, our food safety in light of the discovery of BSE. Scientists around the country, in university and federal research facilities, are toiling away to come up with the answers to key questions. The power of this research arsenal is, in my view, unmatched in human history in its ability to create solutions to vexing health issues.

But we also face this challenge: research funding for the basic science needed to better understand prions has not risen to the top of federal funding priorities, and therefore much of the research efforts that could have gone into better understanding these diseases such as BSE and Chronic Wasting Disease has simply not been undertaken. For example:

  • We have only the first hints of the healthy function of the normal proteins from which prions presumably derived. This lack of knowledge has complicated our ability to predict where and when we can look for the prions during the course of an infection and the result is a lack of a rapid, reliable test in live animals.

  • We are only beginning to understand the transmission of the disease from one animal to another and thus uncertainty remains about how to manage potentially exposed animals. Because the fate of the prion in various environmental conditions (as well as our ability to readily detect environmental contamination by such agents) is so poorly understood, how to deal with quarantine and disinfection is less certain than we would wish. Without fully understanding how the prions damage the brain, designing rational therapies to disrupt the disease process is simply not possible.

Research funding drives research initiatives. And right now the necessary resources haven't been dedicated to the basic science behind this national and international issue. As a result, we can't apply as much knowledge to the problem as we would like, and solutions are therefore slower in coming than they might otherwise be.

So, what to do? We need to create an understanding that basic research -- research that is done to build an understanding of a topic area -- is critically important and in need of increased support. While it is understandable for funding agencies to want to see an immediate return on their investment in the form of vaccines, treatments and cures for health issues, these answers cannot come without more understanding of the topics that need the solutions.

While not every basic research project will produce results that translate into solutions to problems, the track record of American research universities in this area is unparalleled. Having said that, solutions to problems, can only emerge from a thorough understanding of the science behind the problem, and that can only come from making our investments and doing our homework.

The author is Vice President for Research and Information Technology, Colorado State University.


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